Privacy SOS

Since 2003, the Department of Homeland Security has provided cities and towns with some $1 billion in grants to install surveillance cameras in public places (CBS News, June 30, 2010). Cameras obtained to “fight terrorism” are susceptible to “function creep,” and are now used for a variety of law-enforcement purposes.

  • Many of these cameras are extremely powerful. They can pan, tilt, zoom and rapidly rotate 360 degrees, all in a fraction of a second.  Some can “see” for more than a mile.
  • They can be used with license-plate readers, face-recognition software, face and eye scans, radio frequency identification tags, and technology purporting to  detect “anomalous” or “suspicious” behavior.
  • They can easily be misused, as in reported cases where watchers profiled African-American males or zoomed in on women’s bodies. In April 2009 two FBI workers in West Virginia focused surveillance cameras on teenage girls trying on prom dresses.
  • Their digital images can be easily shared, stored indefinitely and used for data mining purposes.
  • Studies in the UK, where there is one camera for every 14 people, and in some American cities, suggest they are not effective in fighting crime.
  • In May 2010, Nick Clegg, the new Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, promised to dismantle Britain’s surveillance system. “This government will end the culture of spying on its citizens,” he declared. “It is outrageous that decent law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide. It has to stop.”
  • When Chicago embarked on a massive surveillance camera network costing millions of dollars, the project was fraught with problems. Many of the systems didn't work, and the overall project cost millions of dollars more than projected. The ACLU of Illinois did a great report on their problem with surveillance cameras, available here.  

The ACLU of Massachusetts is currently engaged in a public records request process, seeking to gain detailed information about the kinds of surveillance camera networks operating in the state. Stay tuned for updates and for primary source documents detailing what kind of technologies are being used, how the information is shared and stored, and how much the systems cost.  

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